A Christmas revival of New Adventures’ ten-year-old production of Sleeping Beauty stirs up all my nagging ambivalence about Matthew Bourne’s work. I’ve mulled over this in print elsewhere several times, and I feel conscious that if Bourne reads reviews – perhaps he doesn’t – he might be groaning into his Corn Flakes. But his reputation is so securely high (a knighthood, Tonys and Oliviers galore), his popularity so ubiquitous, that an honest doubter can’t do him any harm.
Here are the pros. He has invented a recipe of his own, hard to imitate, though many have tried – a mix of Kenneth MacMillan’s sexed-up ballet idiom, Cameron Mackintosh-Andrew Lloyd Webber theatrical spectacle, and the cinematic fantasies of Disney and Tim Burton. He has a keen sense of what makes good theatre – in other words, he can spin a yarn, create vivid characters and hold a restive audience’s attention. In Lez Brotherston he has a wonderful in-house designer, who unfailingly provides him with richly atmospheric stage pictures. Through his choice of dancers, largely trained in performing arts rather than ballet schools, he assembles troupes bursting with exuberant energy and commitment: they always seem, infectiously, to be having fun. Bourne’s shows communicate immediately and directly: kids love them, ladies from the shires love them, people who run a mile from classical ballet love them, even some high-minded critics love them. And he certainly does good business at the box office.
Now for the cons. In stark summary, he is not subtle musically and although he clearly knows the classics inside out (and quotes from them liberally), he exploits only a limited choreographic vocabulary. Every movement is cued to the beat, graphically and overtly semaphored in jerks rather than flows. He never creates a legato that develops organically – his default mode is bump and grind, twist and stretch – and his style is so relentlessly emphatic that small gestures are never made to mean something large.